In the account book of the joiner John Head (1688-1754) there are debit entries for 45 desks, the first entry coming in 1719, two years after Head immigrated from England to Philadelphia, the last in 1742, two years before he ended his production of furniture.
Compared to chests of drawers, there are few extant desks made before 1740 that can be attributed to the Delaware River Valley. To date, only one desk, in a private collection, has been attributed to the shop of John Head.
For an unsigned or undocumented object to be attributed to a specific maker, the object must conform in multiple and significant ways to signed or otherwise documented objects from that maker. Some features regarded as characteristic of furniture documented to the shop of John Head have been discussed in previous posts. The desk described and illustrated below follows the construction, design, and idiosyncratic drawer marking system of the Wistar family documented high chest and dressing table while at the same time expanding of our knowledge of Head’s woodworking ability and inventiveness.
Three-quarter view of a desk attributed to John Head. Made in Philadelphia, 1720-1740. Black walnut, hard pine, Atlantic white cedar, yellow poplar, brass, iron. Private collection.
The fall opens to the writing compartment of the desk.
The three long drawer that vary in height are all marked in white chalk with a semi-circle and single vertical slash placed at the center of the backs.
The two short drawers of similar height have Head’s unique system of whorls, Vs, and slashes used to identify drawer parts that are the same height. Marks from a bench hook can be seen along the upper edge of the back.
Sawing past the gauge line on the interior of the drawer fronts to facilitate removal of waste from the recesses for the dovetails cut on the sides.
The drawers of the desk are made in the same manner as the Wistar family chests. The long drawers have deep rebates on the front twice the thickness of the cedar bottoms. Hard pine runners are glued to the bottoms at the sides. The witness from a sprig, used as a clamp while the glue used to attach the runner dried, can be seen two inches back from the front edge of the runner.
This desk has seen considerable use to the extent that the hard pine drawer runners are entirely worn away in places. The wear offers us a glimpse into Head’s working practice, full size rosehead nails, like used use at the front and back of the drawer bottom, were also used along the sides, concealed under the runners.
As on the Wistar chests, full height, square section drawer stops are nailed and glued to the sides of the desk immediately in front of the backboards.
By their nature, desks require more complex joinery solutions than chests of drawers. This view shows a drawer opening for one of a pair of drawers that, when withdrawn, support the hinged writing surface. No double-arch moulding can be used on the rail the fall is hinged to as it would interfere with the fall when opened. The joinery of the rail to side is thus exposed, revealing that Head used the most elaborate form of a dovetail housing joint.
Head used the absence of moulding around the fall support drawers to create a drawer front unlike any other in furniture documented or attributed to him, he extended the drawer fronts past the sides to act as stops, creating one of the earliest instances of a lipped drawer front made in Philadelphia. Head used lipped waist doors on some of his clock cases, as those doors could not be stopped with blocks at the back of the case as the drawers of the desk are and clock door hinges were prone to damage if inadvertently pushed past the closed position. There was a different reason to use a lip on these drawers however, as Head could easily have placed stops at the back of the drawer opening as he did on the all the other drawers of the desk. Double or single arch moulding on case furniture was decorative but had another important function. Mouldings surrounding the drawer fronts helped disguise the fact that sides, tops, and bottoms of furniture constructed of dovetailed boards eventually shrank while the front to back length of the drawers did not. When the sides of the desk ultimately shrunk, drawers without lips would have sat noticeably proud of the sides and rails.
One of the biggest technical surprises of the desk is that Head used a mitered-dovetail to join the top of the desk to the sides.
Sometimes called a blind miter-dovetail, the joinery is completely concealed with no end grain visible. This desk joint is further complicated by the 45 degree slope of the side and the angled edge at the front of the top board that mates with the top edge of the fall. There is a level of sophistication and neatness in the use of this joint at the corners of a desk the belies the description of Head as solely a joiner to the middling class. This joint is rarely seen on desks made anywhere in the Colonies throughout the eighteenth century. The most refined cabinetmakers would typically lap-dovetail the sides of a desk to the top of even their most elaborate creations.
The miter-dovetail top-to-side joint seen from the back of the desk.
Next: “To a Walnut Desk” Part II, The Writing Compartment